As a child growing up in Nebraska and Minnesota, I remember coming home from school each day around 3:30 in the afternoon. My mother - a full-time mom - greeted me with a hug and some cookies. After we chatted, I practiced the piano until dinner.
Today, for most kids, things are very different. Schools - staying open later - could substitute for the parents that can't be there after school.
In 1992, 66 percent of all families with children under 18 had mothers in the labor force, a study of the National Education Commission on Time and Learning showed.
Twenty-two million adolescents are left unsupervised during the hours of 3 and 6 p.m, according to the Andrews University Institute for Prevention of Addictions.
How are America's kids spending those unsupervised hours?
Many of them are glued to Ricki Lake and Jenny Jones. On average, according to the Center for Research on Women at Wellesley College, American children spend 40 hours a week watching television and playing video games - more hours than they spend in school. Children in low-income households are estimated to spend 50 percent more time watching television than their more affluent peers. Children who watch more television than average are more likely to be obese, read less, and play less; they are also more aggressive, the Wellesley research shows.
Some latchkey adolescents spend unsupervised afternoons having sex. Most adolescent girls who become pregnant do so between 3 and 6 pm, in their own home, the Andrews University research shows.
Latchkey children are especially likely to experiment with alcohol and other drugs. A Task Force on Youth Development and Community Programs study of approximately 5,000 eighth-graders found that students who had no supervision for 11 or more hours a week were at twice the risk of substance abuse as their peers.
Other latchkey kids may spend their unsupervised time committing crime. Most juvenile crime, according to the Andrews study, is committed between the hours of 2 and 6 p.m.
The problem of unsupervised children and youths is likely to get worse. The 1996 welfare reform bill is forcing even more mothers into the work force, since all adults on cash assistance must get a job within two years.
Closing school at 2 or 3 p.m. makes no sense. It is the relic of an agricultural society, in which kids were needed to help with farm chores. Today, typically, there are no chores, there's only one parent, and she's not home.
So what is to be done? Public schools should be open until at least 7 or 8 p.m., on weekdays. They should also be open on weekends and in the summer. Schools should bring in coaches, counselors, and mentors to offer kids havens of sports and supervised activity - or even study.
A Carnegie Council on Academic Development study found that "high school students involved in organized activities had higher self-esteem, higher grades, higher educational aspirations, lower delinquency rates, and a greater sense of control over their lives." A new report by the US Department of Education - "Safe and Smart" - found that communities with after-school programs have lower juvenile crime rates, and lower rates of juvenile tobacco and drug use.
President Clinton recently announced nearly $40 million in new grants to establish or expand after-school programs, under the America After School Act. The grants will enable 315 rural and inner-city schools to provide programs after school, as well as during weekends and summers.
Keeping schools open late makes good financial sense and good common sense. And while there's no substitute for the love and care of a parent, after-school programs are the next-best thing.
* Ted Rueter is the campaign policy director for Mark Dayton, a Democratic candidate for governor of Minnesota.